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The Region and the War

The War Years in the Limousin Occupation and Liberation

  • On the 3rd September 1939 France and Britain declared War on Germany following the invasion of Poland.
  • Germany Invaded France In May and June of 1940
  • France capitulated in June 1940

France was divided into a German occupation zone in the north and west and a nominally independent state in the south to be based in the spa town of Vichy, dubbed “Vichey France”.

This new French state, headed by Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, accepted its status as a defeated nation and collaborated with the Germans. Charles de Gaulle, who was the Undersecretary of National Defence, was in London at the time of the surrender and made his “Appeal of the 18th June”.

In this broadcast, by the BBC he refused to recognize the Vichy government as legitimate and began the task of organising the Free French forces.

After Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain signed the armistice in 1940, the Gestapo began hunting down communists and socialists. Most of them went into hiding. The obvious place to go was in the forests of the unoccupied zones. Escaped soldiers from the French Army also fled to these forests.

These men and women gradually formed themselves into units based on political beliefs and geographical area. These groups became known as the Maquis (the name comes from the small scrub bushes in that part of the world, which they frequently used for cover against the Germans).

In the spring of 1942, communist militants, acting independently of the leadership of the French Communist Party, organized the first Maquis units in the Limousin and the Puy-de-Dôme. Maquis groups were established in many other regions of France. As the Maquis grew in strength, it began to organise attacks on German forces.

In the Limousin the communist militant, Georges Guingouin, led the Maquis. At this time Guingouin, was not supplied with any weapons. Therefore, their main method of resisting the German Army was sabotage. This included attacks on bridges, telephone lines and railway tracks.

The Maquis also provided aide and protection to refugees, immigrants, Jews, and others threatened by Vichy France and the German authorities. They frequently helped to get Allied airmen, whose aircraft had been shot down in France, to gel back to Britain.

Georges Guingouin – The 1st Maquisard of France

1. Childhood Education and Military Life (1913 .1940)

Georges Guingouin was born on the 2nd February 1913 in the Haute-Vienne the small town of Magnac-Laval. His father was a professional soldier, a non-commissioned officer who was killed at Bapaume on August 28th 1914, at the very beginning of WWI.

From a very early age therefore, Georges Guingouin was strongly influenced by his mother. Georges’ mother was a school teacher, who gave him a thirst for reading, especially about patriotic events in France’s past such as the peasant resistance in the Vosges during 1815 and the ‘Tireurs Franks’, Free-Shooters) of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870

After studying at the Higher Primary school in Beilac, Guingouin followed his mother’s example by progressing to the Teacher Training School in Limoges. Conscripted in 1934, at the age of 21 Guingouin went on to complete three years of military service in the infantry principally as Secretary of Staff to the 6th Training Company at the Military academy in Paris, this position would undoubtedly have provided the necessary skills to organise and control the band of Résistance fighters, which he formed as the war progressed. However, at the outbreak of the war he was working as a teacher in St-Gilles-les-Foret (Haute-Vienne).

More importantly though, during these formative years, Guingouin rose to the position of secretary of the Communist Party of Eymoutiers he had discovered the works of Marx and Lenin and in his position; Guingouin would have gained an understanding of the people and thé political climate of the eastern districts of the Haute-Vienne.

Mobilised on August 23rd 1939, Guingouin was attached to thé 120/124 transport group. However, he was wounded in the head on June 17th 1940 and was evacuated to the Sainte-Madeleine Military Hospital at Moulins-sur-Allier On June 18, just one day after Guingouin was evacuated the city came under attack by advancing German forces. Guingouin, refusing to be taken prisoner, joined the French unit defending the city. Heavily under fire, the unit were eventually forced to retreat to Montlucon.

Coincidentally, Guingouin’s retreat to Montlucon, under heavy fire and wounded, occurred on the same day as General de Gaulle, who from the relative safety of his London base, made his famous appeal to the people of France. He declared the war for France was not yet over, and rallied the country in support of the Resistance. It was one of the most important speeches in French history.

2. The Fight for Freedom 1940 -1944

Guingouin returned to 3t Gilles-les-Foret in June 1940 and resumed his work as a teacher, and as a secretary at thé Mayors office. In this role, he was able to produce false identity papers. The French Communist party had supported the Nazi-Soviet pact (Ribbentrop-Mototov) in August 1939, which brought Government disapproval upon them. With the outbreak of war, the Cabinet completed the measures already taken against Communism by ordering, on Sept. 26, the absolution of the French Communist Party.

In September 1940 Guingouin lost his job because he was a communist. The communist party also did not approve of him, because in August 1940 he wrote a call to arms against the Vichy Government and Germany. The communist party felt that he should be tolerant with the Germans because of the German-USSR pact. He had no choice but to go in to hiding.
Georges Guingouin met with several like-minded people and decided to start a resistance movement At this time, Guingouin was known as “Raoul” – the name he kept throughout the war.

Propaganda was the only resistance action available at this time. Paper was in short supply and ink had to be made from linseed oil and soot, but they produced leaflets, often at night in cellars or cowsheds, and distributed them to famers at local markets.
Guingouin created a resistance group based in the forests around Chateauneuf la Foret. France was now an occupied country so it was necessary to keep the location secret. Life in the camp was difficult and dangerous. The local population gave much help and many people wanted tojoin the group. However, there were traitors who tried to infiltrate the resistance movement. If a traitor was discovered they were immediately killed – too many lives were at stake – and there were no prisons in the forest!

The resistance movement operated on many fronts. They carried messages and hid underground workers for the allies. Many airmen who were shot down during the war owe their lives to the resistance groups. They were hidden and assisted in their escape from France. In October 1942, the Vichey Government decreed that boxes of food should be sent from rural areas to Cities in Germany. The local population did not have enough food as it was, Gutagouin and his group who destroyed as many empty boxes as possible. They stole dynamite and destroyed bridges factories, and railway lines – anything that would make life difficult German occupation.

It was difficult to obtain weapons (especially for Guingouin who as a communist was disliked by De Gaulle) but there were occasional parachute drops. On June 26th 1944, 72 planes dropped 864 parachutes in the Domps area. It was an exceedingly difficult and dangerous daytime operation due to the proximity of German troops staying in the village. A further large “drop” was expected on the 14th July but the resistance had advance information that a large contingent of German soldiers was due in the area. It was too late to cancel the “drop”, so Guingouin and the Maquis took all the weapons and ammunition to Mont Gargan where they lay in wait for the Germans to find them. On the 17th July 2,500 German soldiers in 500 vehicles arrived at Mont Gargan and a 7 day battle ensued. 342 Germans were killed but only 47 of the Maquis. It was a great battle and one of the most important in the history of thé Maquis.

3. The D- Day landings and afterwards – 1944

The BBC warned the resistance movement about the D-Day landings in coded broadcasts. Their brief was to delay the German troop movements towards Normandy in order to buy time for the Allied invasion.

Two tradgedies occurred in the Limousin during this time at Tulle and Oradour sur Glane. A Panzer division (Das Reich) were moving north from Montauban.

6th June 1944… D-Day. The allied incasion of France via the Normandy beaches began. Das Reich was passed the order, “Come to march rediness”.

7th June 1944… March preparations were finalised and the Division prepared to move off on the road to Normandy, over 400 miles to the North.

8th June 1944… Das Reich moved off in the early morning and had skirmishes with the resistance at various locations. The journey was made both tiring and trying by roadblocks of felled trees and various barricades. Later in the day, they heard that the Resistance had mounted a full-scale attack on the German garrison in the town of Tulle.

9th June1944… Part of Reconnaissance Battalion II under Heinrich Wulf retook the the town of Tulle. In a reprisal for the attack itself and the killing and mutilation of numerous German garrison troops, they hung 99 suspected members of the Resistance from lampposts and balconies.

The commander of Der Fùhrer Battalion III, Sturmbannfuhrer Helmut Kampfe was sent to the town of Guret in order to relive the garrison there; which was reported to be besieged. On his return from the town that evening and whilst travelling alone he was abducted by the Resistance He was the highest-ranking German officer ever to fall into their hands throughout the war years.

Battalion I under Adolf Diekmann had a most difficult day, encountering numerous dashes with the Resistance and losing some men killed in action on the march

10th June 1944… Early in the morning, troops from the Gross Deutschland Regiment of Das Reich took severe reprisal action against the village of Marsoulas in the Haute Garonne following their being fired on from the church.

Because of the abduction of Kampfe, circumstances combined to send Adolf Diekmann to the town of Oradour sur Glane, where during the course of the afternoon the entire town was destroyed and 642 inhabitants were killed as a reprisal.

After the war, General Charles de Gaulle decreed that the village of Oradour sur Glane would never be rebuilt. Instead, it would remain as a memorial to the cruelty of Nazi occupation.

21st August 1944… Georges Gingouin and his faithful Maquisards freed the City of Limoges with no bloodshed. The occupying Germans realised that the city was surrounded, so they laid down their arms and left the city.

The role of women in the résistance

There were many brave women in a variety of roles in the resistance movement.
Mrs Bourdaria was nicknamed “The Mother of thé Maquis”. Her husband and son had been deported but she continued to feed and assist the maquisards.

Thérèse Menot sabotaged the factory where she worked; she was caught and deported to Ravensbruck – the concentration camp for women. Fortunately she returned to France after the end of the war and spent years talking about life in the camps to school children. Another important woman who was deported to Ravensbruck was Violette Szabo she was an English SOE operative: and arrived in the Limousin after the D-Day landings. She was deported and killed by special order in January 1945. she was awarded the George Cross, Croix de Guerre.

Concentration and extermination camps

Hitler was elected on the 30th January 1933. He opened the first concentration camp In March 1933 at Dachau The camp was built to imprison political opponents, mentally ill people and homosexuals Until 1939, the prisoners were essentially German, but after the war began any person who was an enemy of the Nazi’s were captured and imprisoned. There were Jews, gypsies, resistance members, political activists, homosexuals etc..

Life in the camps was really hard: each person had a number tattooed on their arm. They were never known by name and must say the number in German or they were punished. There was also a coloured triangle sewn on to their clothes, Red for political enemies, pink for homosexuals, yellow for Jews. Conditions in the camps were appalling: food, hygiene and medical assistance standards were abysmal and many people died.

By 1942 there were about 20 camps and 165 satellite work camps. There were 6 extermination camps based in Roland and Germany – Chelmo, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz. The latter two were combined extermination/concentration camps.

There was large scale human medical experimentation in the camps. After the war, these crimes were tried at what became known as the Doctors Trial, and revulsion at the abuses perpetrated led to the development of the Nuremberg Code of Medical Ethics.

Internment camps in France.

In 1938, the French government had created internment camps in France to accommodate the Spanish who escaped from the civil war raging in their country. The first opened was “Rieucros” near Mende in the south of France. Later other camps were built and by 1940 there were 93 internment camps in the South alone – 3 of them in Haute Vienne. The Vichy government used these camps to imprison Jews, Communists, Resistance members and many others – it was usually the starting point transportation to a German camp.

In Haute Vienne the first to open in 1940, was the camp at Saint-Germain-Les-Belles. It was not open for very long but two further camps were built in November 1940 – Nexon and Saint-Paul-d’Eyjaux. On the 11th June 1944, 54 prisoners were liberated by French Interior forces from Nexon. The same day, Maquisards liberated the camp at Saint-Pairf-d’Eyjaux.

The Milice

The Milice (Militia) was a paramilitary force created in 1943, with German aid, to help fight “Terrorism” – that is the French Resistance – in Vichy France. The Milice, headed by Joseph Darnand participated in summary executions, assassinations and helped round up the Jews and Resistants in France for deportation. It was the successor to Joseph Damand’s Service d’ordre légionnaire (SOL) militia.

Like the Gestapo, the Milice often resorted to torture to extract information or confessions from those they rounded up. They were often considered even more deadly and cruel than the Gestapo and SS themselves, since they were Frenchmen who spoke the language had a full Knowledge of the towns and land, and knew people and informers.

In August 1944, rightly fearing he would be called to account for the opinions of the Milice Marshall Petain made a clumsy effort to distance himself from the organization by writing a harsh letter rebuking Darnand for the organisations “excesses.” Darnand sent back a sarcastic reply, telling Petain that he ought to have voiced his objections sooner.

The actual strength of the organisation is a matter of some debate, but was likely between 25,000 – 35,000 by the time of the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944. It began melting away rapidly thereafter, however.

Following the Liberation of France, those of its members who failed to complete their escape to Germany (where they were impressed into the Charlemagne Division of the Waffen-SS) or elsewhere abroad generally faced either execution following summary court-martial or were simply shot out of hand by vengeful Resistance workers and enraged civilians.

This information is part of the diplay at the Resistance Museum at Peyrat le Chateau. Very much worth a visit either before or after Oradour Sur Glane